After seeing the sandhills disappear, we passed the open area with the geese, and came to another island of trees. A snag hung out over the water, the end bent down into the water. Larry said, “A muskrat on your left.” I turned to look but wasn’t able to see it right away. Then I realized what I thought was a log was actually a mammal; dark brown, little ears, beady eyes, sitting in the water. It sat facing us. Carefully, I put down my paddle and lifted my camera to my face. Just as I was about to take a shot, it vanished beneath the water. “There he goes.” Larry commented. I was disappointed not to get the photo, but happy to have at least observed it for a few moments. Perhaps there will be another chance, if not today then another time. After seeing the muskrat, I left the paddling up to Larry; he didn’t need the help and I wanted to be ready with my camera. Although I love to help paddle, it was great to have my hands free. I marveled at the trees along the bank that had already leafed out. I took in the greening of the aquatic vegetation and the general beauty of the day.
Larry continued to paddle, slowly, just keeping us going the right direction. The trees on our left had dropped away. The marsh was open, the trees far in the distance across the vegetation-filled marsh. I observed small fish darting by in the water below us, “Lots of little fish,” I said. They were moving too fast for me to catch more than a glimpse of them. Sometimes they came to the surface only to dive seconds later, casting small ripples across the water.
“Most likely all are species of shiners spawning up here,” explained Larry. I enjoyed watching them dart about, tiny glints of silver, moving through the water. Larry said, “We’ll start to see painted turtles now, in pairs. Turtle love.” I gazed into the water, keeping a look out for turtles. Larry saw a couple. More geese squawked and honked as we drew near to them. Red wing black birds were still calling. I enjoyed the beauty of their mirrored image on the water’s surface.
The world beneath us quickly caught my attention again. “Do you see any turtles?” Larry asked.
“No.” I peered into the water intently, then, “I see one, I see one!” I exclaimed. I watched it swim for a moment before it disappeared. It kicked with its legs much like an elephant does when swimming. I was thrilled to see it.
“Look to your left,” instructed Larry. I turned my head a little but didn’t see anything. “Further, further,” Larry instructed patiently, as I continued to search. “There’s a turtle.” I still didn’t see it. “Right next to you.” The canoe glided forward. I still didn’t see it. Larry reached down and picked up a painted turtle. Water dripped from it. I turned around to take a picture. Making the turtle talk, Larry said, “Hi, Bethany. Take my picture.” The turtle was looking at me, not so sure about the whole thing. Toes spread, claws extended, wondering why it wasn’t still swimming below the water’s surface. A beautiful, elegant creature, incredibly adapted for its life style. In a matter of moments, Larry gently returned the turtle to the water.
The line of trees on the left was a little closer again. We came upon another pair of Canada geese. I enjoyed watching the magnificent, large birds take flight, though sad to have disturbed them. Larry commented, “Goose territory – why aren’t we seeing any goslings? I wonder if the otters are just that efficient and that’s why we aren’t seeing any?” A muskrat lodge was nearly hidden in the cattails. I scanned the water around the lodge, hoping to see another muskrat but there weren’t any.
The sun was starting to get warm, I contemplated taking my jacket off but then a gentle northwest wind began to blow. I picked up the paddle and helped Larry, as we began to turn a little to our left, heading more west instead of north. The current had turned; we were continuing to follow it. Facing into the breeze was a bit cool, my eyes became a little watery, my nose a little runny. I took in the greening cattails and lovely snags, barren, sticking up out of the water. I marveled at the geese and took in the beauty of the aquatic, green and brown plants reflecting in the water.
Our attention shifted to the world beneath the water’s surface. So many little fish swam about. Larry exclaimed, “There’s thousands!” Small, tiny little things came off the water. I wondered what it was; dust, some kind of pollen or something. Then I realized they were tiny insects, like a black fly or gnat.
Larry and I paddled against the wind and current, which was getting a little tricky. Larry said, “I was hoping we’d get as far as the beaver dam.” So we kept paddling. The lake-like channel had narrowed considerably, a little more than twice the size of the canoe. The vegetation grew more thickly, clumps of bright green cattails and brown vegetation.
We stopped paddling a little bit to take in our surroundings. Bluffs loomed up ahead. Across the marsh, there appeared to be more vegetation then water. Canada geese were swimming some distance away. Trees rimmed the north bank, behind the geese. We watched the fish below us.
Larry said, “Man, the road traffic is loud today.” It was starting to drown out all else.
“Yeah, it seems a lot louder than the other times.”
“Wind out of the northwest, blowing the sound right to us.” It was unfortunate to have the loud highway noise, but it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the overall experience. We sat there for a few minutes, talking briefly but mostly silent.
We started paddling again. A pile of branches stuck out of the water across our path. The canoe headed directly for it and got hung up on it. Larry said, “Push us off the branches.” So I pushed on the left side, muscles straining against the effort; the blade was set against the branches. Larry exchanged his paddle for the duck bill pole, aiding in pushing the canoe forward. Very slowly, the canoe inched forward with some creaking of the hull against the branches. We made it over, paddling a bit further.
And then, there it was. The beaver dam, a little further ahead of us. It was tucked into the vegetation. Didn’t look like much, nothing grand, very small. Water poured over it like a waterfall. Though small, it was beautiful. I marveled at the ingenuity of the beavers. Larry instructed, “What we are seeing here is the affects of the Zumbro channel.” He stood up to take a better look at it. “If you look above the beaver dam, you’ll notice the difference. The water level is higher up there. Good spot for a dam. You see these bigger trees and stumps – old trees before locks and dams were put in. The locks and dams flooded the trees. Beavers moved in and went to work on the trees.” Larry sat back down. “Ok, now you stand up and take a good look at it. See how it’s higher on the left.” I carefully stood up, balancing my weight, taking it in. I was amazed. It certainly was a good spot for a beaver dam. From the higher vantage, I observed the dam to be longer than it had first appeared, some of it quite hidden by the vegetation. I was a little nervous about standing up in the canoe, I could feel the canoe teeter and totter a bit beneath me, so after having a good look around, and I sat back down.
I asked, “What are those green plants?” They had three leaves/fronds spread like a fan.
He replied, “Cattails.”
“Ah, so that’s how they look when they first start out.”
“Yeah, you see a shift in aquatic life bathed by warmth and nutrients, just take off, which is why these ecosystems are so prolific.
May 12, 2016
Early this morning, Larry and I headed out on another canoeing adventure, around 6:50 am. We stopped the truck and unloaded the canoe by the bridge on highway 84 again. We were finally going to give McCarthy Lake another try. The morning was beautiful, a little cool (just above freezing), not a cloud in the sky and perfectly calm. Before unloading the canoe, we looked out over the lake, soaking it in; watching a pair of ducks bobbing on the water, feathers dark. Further up a pair of Canada geese swam. Near the pair, a male red wing black bird filled the morning air with song. I was awed by the beauty and opportunity to watch life unfold in front of me. Trees that had just started to leaf out a few weeks ago were completely leafed now. It was so bright and so green. The aquatic vegetation was finally starting to green and grow. It was breathtaking, stunning, simply lovely.
Larry said, “We’re going to head up McCarthy as far as we can go.” (Larry said the water level is down.) He placed the canoe in the water, bow pointed upstream. As always, I stepped in first. Once seated, Larry handed a paddle to me, pushed the canoe further out in the water, gingerly stepped into the canoe, sitting in the stern. As we shoved off, Larry said, “See the green vegetation starting to stand up out of the water? That’s wild rice.”
McCarthy appears to divide into two channels, a narrow one off to our left and a much wider one in front of us, with a couple small alcoves, like ponds to our right. The two channels are divided by an ‘island’ of trees and other vegetation. We continued straight ahead on the wider channel, overcome by the beauty of this place. The fine weather was an answer to prayer. We both started paddling; though I often set my paddle down to take a couple photos. The island of trees on our immediate left was very dense at first, a wall of trees. I marveled at their graceful forms, adding to the beauty and overall feeling of peacefulness. I reveled in the mirrored images in the water; the beaver dam was especially perfect.
Another pair of Canada geese squawked and honked ahead, to our left; the black, gray, white bird majestic in the morning light, large and elegant. We seemed to have intruded on their territory. A red wing black bird also had territory staked out near the pair of Canada geese, perched on some vegetation, reflected in the water – so beautiful. I enjoyed listening to his song; more than anything else, to me, that’s the sound of spring and prairie wetlands. The wall of trees continued on a little further then began to thin. A small, open area provided some space from an island to the next. Another distinctive, ancient, heart-stirring sound rang out over the marsh. My heart will always leap at the sound, filled with excitement and hope to see the magnificent birds that make the most wild of noises, a lonely trumpet echoing across the marsh; almost a step back in time. Sandhill cranes. I hoped and so desired to see one and photograph it. However, they could be hidden anywhere in the many acres of McCarthy or surrounding land.
Being out on the water was relaxing, a perfect way to start a day; just listening to the wild bird song. Larry said, “We’ll start to see turtles now; painted turtles.” I peered into the water; it was so clear. A whole other world existed beneath the water’s surface. In some places it looked like an evergreen forest, conifer trees here and there. I asked Larry what it was. He said it was a kind of algae. We went at a slow pace, just taking in all the beauty; geese honking and flying, the song of the red wing black bird, and we were still hearing the wild trumpeting of the sandhill cranes. The water was lovely and quiet. Quiet time out on the water is so healing and refreshing; I think my soul needs it; a time of worship, in expectation of God’s extravagance and love. What gift would I receive this time?
As we were just gliding along, Larry said, “To our left,” but didn’t immediately say what I should be seeing. I turned my head, scanning the water to our left. “Further left.” Pause. My eyes continued searching. “Do you see that?” A moment pause, then, “Sandhills.” I couldn’t see them; I wasn’t even sure where to look.
“On your left. See those dead trees there?”
“Oooh, I see them!” I exclaimed, filled with excitement – elated by the sighting. Larry turned the canoe a little towards them. I lifted my camera, with the long lens zoomed in. Their rusty feathers hid them well among the vegetation despite their size and bright red heads. They were exquisite – magnificent, ancient nobility. My heart soared! There they were! Just standing there, not flying away immediately. However, Larry said, “They’re getting nervous.” I took a few photos before they really started to get nervous. Then they were on the move; walking at first, before taking to the air. Larry steered the canoe so the bow was following the flight of the cranes. I took several photos hoping at least a couple would turn out. It had been a beautiful moment. I hadn’t really expected to see sandhills, though their call filled the marsh; I desired, hoped and longed to see them. It was an amazing gift, which filled me with thankfulness. Another experience to treasure. The cranes flew through the trees and were soon out of sight. Their call continuing on, after they disappeared. Another red wing black bird sang, perched on vegetation below the flight path of the cranes.
A pair of Canada geese squawked and honked making all sorts of noise as we drew near. Trees loomed up behind them, on our left, up ahead. The trees grew close together, rising above the other vegetation and water. The patch of trees wasn’t very big, it soon opened up again. Aquatic vegetation was thick, appearing to grow in stripes. A male red wing black bird claimed his territory, sang to attract a mate. Bluffs in the distance cradled the marsh. A pair of geese swam in the open water beyond the first ‘row’ of vegetation, another ‘row’ behind them. I enjoyed the mosaic of the marshland vegetation in its intricacy. These geese were also noisy, not happy with our intrusion on their territory. Did they have nests? We didn’t see any but it was nesting season, in fact, some goslings should have hatched already.
Though the birds were lovely, my attention shifted to the water’s surface ahead, to the left, and as we glided along, around us. Large, waxy, green leaves, not quite circular floated on the water’s surface, like a fairy tale, adding tranquility. “Are those..?” I began to ask.
“Yellow water lilies.” Larry supplied. They were quite lovely, story book lily pads that you’d expect to see a frog sitting upon. It was as if we were canoeing through an impressionist painting. And indeed we were. Perhaps handpicked by the Master himself for my delight. This was my cathedral, my place of worship.
My attention was continually fought over by the abundance of life and beauty here; reflections, mirrored images on the water’s surface, plants underwater, bent in the current, lily pads dotting the water. Teals floated near the bank on our right, tucked in close to the vegetation. Larry and I both saw them at the same time saying, “Teal,” almost simultaneously. Larry seems especially fond of teals, finding their coloration very appealing. I have come to enjoy them as well. Trees bordered the right bank, creating a wall, a barrier from the outside world, providing solitude in our own little world, one with the canoe a great medium for connecting to a marsh, quieter, far less disruptive, and able to traverse shallow water, puts you at the same level, moving at a slow enough pace to take it all in. The blue wing teals, with lots of splashing and spraying of water, flew away as we drew near. We encountered another pair of Canada geese, receiving the same reception as from the others and another red wing black bird.
Larry paused, sat back on his heals within several feet of the brushy tree line. There was a narrow window, at the base of the trees, in which we had a glimpse of the pond. A duck (probably blue –winged teal) floated right before us in that window. I moved to where Larry sat, trying to get a better view of the duck, sadly though, the little bit of movement startled the duck. It flew off in alarm, alerting the others to our presence, which then in turn also flew off. We lay flat on our bellies and waited for them to circle back and land on the pond again. A few came back; we watched them for a few minutes but didn’t have a very good view.
Soon we were on the move again. This time we didn’t stand up at all; rather we crawled on our hands and knees, following the deer trail as it curved to the right, heading south. Again, my hands were being poked by the dead vegetation; I was still enjoying the adventure though. The row of trees curved again, following the water’s edge. There we halted at the base of the trees. Larry sat and I kneeled. The window, under the tree branches, looking upon the water was a little larger. Now with the wind at our backs, Larry whispered, “We have to be really quiet, they can hear us better.”
Larry pointed to his left, I looked in that direction but it took me a moment to figure out what he was pointing to. Then I saw it. The black with green stripes is a surprisingly good camouflage. A garter snake lay stretched out and unmoving. “Cool.”
“It’s dead though.” And so it was though it didn’t look dead. “I wonder why nothing has started eating it.”Larry pondered. I like snakes and garter snakes are completely harmless, however it was almost unnerving having a snake just laying there instead of on the move. My eyes kept going back to it.
Our main focus was the ducks on the pond ahead of us. They bobbed in the water, perfect watercraft. Were boats intentionally designed based on the body shape of waterfowl? There were two directly in front of us, swimming back and forth in that one little area. Larry whispered, “Those two are acting like sentries. If they weren’t there, I’d clear some of this brush so we could get closer.” We sat and watched the ducks swim by for several minutes. We took it all in quietly, enjoying being totally emerged; the crouching, crawling, sneaking and having to whisper enhanced our experience, becoming one with the place, and the overall thrill and fun of it.
Minutes passed and we were on the move again, once more crawling on hands and knees along the tree line, heading westward. We didn’t go too far before we paused yet again. Sitting up, in a crouch, squat, we looked out on the water. The opening was higher up this time. Several ducks swam in front of us, unbothered by the cold, windy weather, though perhaps the wind was the reason they stayed so close to the bank and row of trees which more than likely offered protection from the gusting wind. We didn’t linger as long in that spot since we were heading out.
“Ready to scare the birds?” asked Larry. I nodded. “We’ll stand up slowly.” Instead of standing up right away, we crawled a little further. Then we stood up slowly, scaring the ducks in the process. After watching the birds fly for a moment, we continued walking along the trees.
Our current trail met up with our previous one before we turned eastward. We rounded some trees. Larry halted looking in the grass. “A dead painted turtle.” Larry bent over and picked it up. Examining it, “it’s a beautiful shell. Not a lot of predation yet.” Only one foot had been gnawed on a little bit. “Do you want it? It’s such a beautiful shell.”
“Maybe.” He handed it to me so I could have a closer look. I was amazed at how heavy it felt. “How do you get it cleaned out?”
“Just set it somewhere – not in the house – let maggots clean it up.”
“I’ll keep it then. I’ll put it somewhere safe in the garage.” The turtle’s presence could still be felt. “It’s much heavier than you’d think given its size,” I remarked.
“Well, of course it’s heavy, they’re carrying around their house.” We continued walking southward following the trail between the trees and prairie/field. Far up ahead was a larger group of male red wing blackbirds congregating on the ground. We couldn’t tell what they were doing or what was attracting them. Some flew away as we drew nearer.
Soon, we turned eastward again into the tree tunnel. Oh how I loved that spot! As we walked by the spot that had water on either side, Larry said, “Otter scat. Sit here and you’ll see otters.”
“That’d be cool.” We hadn’t stopped walking. Out of the tunnel, it opened up. Grassy with a few trees here and there near the driveway, lots of trees growing thickly further away. Again, I marveled at the stately dead tree. Through the gate and back into the truck. My feet were numb, my nose so cold it was probably red and my hands were on the way to being numb.
We turned right on to 84, heading southward. The road turned right, taking us west. Across the bridge. A lone swan was swimming in the water to our right. Larry slowed the truck, then stopped, with the window down so I could take a picture and to look for its mate. “Where’s its mate?” asked Larry, but no mate could be seen. A pair of mallards floated nearby. “Its rusty colored from diving and picking things up off the bottom. Places with oak – lots of tannin – look very red.” There was also a pair of Canada geese nearby.
Back at Larry’s, we unloaded the canoe. It was about 8:50 am. “Do you have time for pie?”
“Yeah, I have time.” With that we headed into Kellogg; the crow still riding shotgun in the seat next to me. Amazing how the spirit seemed to linger on in the skull. Along Highway 61, we could look out over McCarthy Lake and the dunes, I marveled at the vastness and beauty of the intricate and delicate ecosystem. At the café, we each enjoyed a slice of pie, and then were on the move again. We took 84 directly from Kellogg instead of going on 61 again. Heading east, there were suddenly large snow flurries, which had not been in the forecast at all. Looking to the Wisconsin bluffs, Larry said, “There’s a snow squall blowing in from Wisconsin.” We could almost see the snow clouds rolling of the Wisconsin bluffs and across the Mississippi River. The road curved dramatically to the right, we were heading southward.The quantity of snowflakes flying through the air increased so it could no longer be classified as mere “flurries”. It had felt warmer when we walked the channel in January. As we drove past the dunes again and sprawling fields, we saw a sandhill crane in Edelbach’s field. Just a glimpse, even that is exciting. However, I really desire to see one closer up and even have the opportunity to take a good photo of it. Before long we were crossing the bridge again, the lonely swan was still swimming in the same spot as before. Another adventure ended with the hope we would get a nice (nearly windless) day to go canoeing soon.
“There’s a pair of teals right there.” Larry indicated a spot almost directly ahead. I marveled at the handsome pair. Another group circled and landed on the pond. “Northern shovelers.” The water fowl were noisy – everyone was talking at once. We just sat taking it all in; the brilliant, emerald head of the northern shoveler drake, the striking white, crescent down the cheek of the blue winged teal, the equally striking white strip just ahead of the wing of the green –winged teal. (Larry seemed to be especially fond of the teals, exclaiming about their beauty every time we saw one on our outings.) The cacophony of duck voices was far more intricate than the “quack, quack” of mallards. “We’re seeing some mating behavior,” explained Larry. There were also some going “bottom’s up” into the water, most likely in pursuit of food.
Larry indicated we should keep moving and crawled to our left, following a different path from the way we came in, going closer to the trunk of the tree. For a moment, I wondered if I was suppose to follow him but after seeing he was looking at something and then continued heading out from under the trees, I followed more or less the same way we had come in since it was slightly easier. I emerged first from the trees and was immediately blasted by the wind. Larry came out behind me, pulling up beside me, “Here’s a crow skull for you.”
I have never seen nor touched a crow skull before; it was a whole new experience for me and not exactly what I was expecting when I held out my hand to receive the skull. The experience was deeply spiritual and amazing. I could feel the spirit of the crow lingering on the skull. A feeling of connectedness to the crow washed over me. I gently cradled it in my hands, not wanting to damage it. There were still a few black feathers on the top and back of the skull.
We continued to walk in the wind; my feet were getting so cold and my eyes watered and my nose dripped. It felt colder then when we walked the channel in January, but then I had been prepared for cold with insulated boots. Larry led us northwest over the prairie a little ways, somewhat following the water. Thick scrubby trees, including buckthorn guarded the bank. Now we approached the water from the west. Larry tried to find a more open spot that would still provide us with some cover. We peered through the trees on McCarthy Lake; a beautiful sight. The water rippled in the gale winds. Though the wetlands echoed with water fowl voices, the wind was trying to compete. There weren’t any birds out on the water that we could see from that vantage. We stood there gazing out, eyes searching the water and nearby vegetation, for only a few moments. With nothing in sight Larry decided it was time to move on.
Turning around, we headed back the way we came. Wading through waist tall little blue stem, stumbling on the sandy soil, I fell behind Larry again with the gap between us getting wider. Still cradling the crow skull, I had to nearly run to catch up to Larry. As I came up beside him, he put his arm around my shoulder, “Are you having fun?” Being on a stealth walk to observe aquatic animals with Larry, of course it was fun even if it was far too windy and a bit cold.
“Yes,” I replied, smiling up at him. We had covered the distance from the water’s edge to the fence near the road at a quick pace. Again, Larry pushed the wire down low enough so that I could step over. In the truck, I set the crow skull on the seat next to me, beak facing forward. It felt like the crow was still there, riding along with us like a buddy. I could feel its presence.
Larry drove the truck along 84, heading northward. I took in the landscape around us. A blue bird perched on a fence post. Pine trees wildly waving their boughs, moving to the rhythm of the wind. A field of golden, brown little blue stem, rolling like waves. Clumps of trees on the left, prairie situated between the clusters. Some farm land. On the right rolling prairie, up and down the large dunes; various dried and growing prairie plants lending variety of color and patterns and texture to create a stunning landscape. After more trees, the pattern was similar on the left side. Nestled between the dunes sat a picturesque pond, its water sparkling in the morning light. We drove beyond the pond a little bit then turned around, heading back southward. We pulled into the TNC residence driveway and met Butch Kelly out walking. We paused to talk to him; Larry said he would be another good person to talk to that has been living on the prairie for a really long time. Larry told Butch about my interest in the place and the history of it. Butch said he’d be happy to talk with me. They talked about the birds; a mallard pair in the TNC’s pond had a nest with eggs. As they were talking, I observed the ducks swimming in the small pond ahead of us. The wind was so powerful, I could feel the truck sway. We said goodbye to Butch, allowing him to get back to his walk, and continued up the driveway to turn the truck around.
Back on 84, we pulled over on the right, west, side of the road (which is south of Pritchard’s road) on an old field driveway blocked with a gate and a wildlife Area sign. We were going to do more exploring. There’s a big enough gap in the gates to walk through, which we did. We passed an august dead tree, standing beautifully in contrast to the scenery around it. This was where grassland met woodland. Most likely farmed for years then bought as a reserve area, leaving nature to do its thing. We followed along the former driveway, past a few red cedars. Then the drive curves a little to the left. Another remnant fence line intersects the drive, old wooden posts stand at equal distance from each other. The trees grew closer to the drive, creating almost a tunnel out of tree limbs, an enchanting affect. The drive narrows through there. Water on either side, pond like on our right and marsh – like on our left. Cattails in both were coming unraveled.
I noticed the water on our left appeared orange, “Why is it orange looking?”
“The deanimation of organic matter, we talked about. Precursor to oil,” answered Larry. We continued to walk without pausing. Once through the tree tunnel, the area opens up into a field/prairie. It looked like a field of sunflowers and prairie grasses. (I didn’t even think to ask Larry about it.) The dead dry vegetation was easily waste high. The drive took a sharp right turn, we followed along this. (Trees bordered the other side of the filed/prairie and beyond that McCarthy.) Trees grew thickly on our right, a lot of short shrubby, brushy trees. Our path had a slight curve in it, following the trees.
Then after several hundred feet, we came to a spot where the line of trees fell away (creating an oxbow affect as the prairie bumped out in a half circle, the trees rimming it. We continued straight on to the row of trees on the north side of the arc. Turning to our right (east), we followed a deer trail along the trees. As we neared to the water, we crouched down a little as we walked, getting lower and lower as we crept closer and closer to the fence of trees bordering the water. Finally, with several tens of feet to go, we dropped about as low as we could, crawling on our hands and knees along the deer trail, ever mindful of where we put our hands to avoid deer droppings that were scattered along the trail. I was thankful to be wearing gloves, but even so pieces of the dried vegetation poked through the gloves, stabbing my hands. Despite the pricks and pokes my hands received, I was having fun. What better way to connect and become one with nature than to crawl on a deer trail through waist deep little blue stem and other prairie plants? – completely emerged in our natural surroundings. It felt like we were kids at play, sneaking through the tall grass. Indeed, I believe it was childlike wonder and awe that compelled us forward in such a manner. It just felt so carefree and thrilling.
Larry and I wanted to canoe early in the morning to increase our chances of seeing aquatic mammals. I arrived at his place around 6:30 am; we loaded the canoe and were off. We didn’t take Hank (or Jake) this time, Larry told them, “sorry guys, you can’t come along, today we want stealth.” As we approached Highway 61, we could look out over a little of the wetlands to the distant Wisconsin bluffs. A bank of clouds rose up above the bluffs appearing as a mountain range. “I’m not sure what’s with that bank of clouds, at 3:30 this morning it was completely clear,” said Larry.
“The forecast was for a sunny day.” The clouds seemed to be spreading, turning a sunny day into mostly cloudy. There was a very strong breeze too. Larry commented on the breeze, “Its 30 degrees in the valley. And really breezy – I was hoping for calm.” It would make canoeing difficult. We pulled off Hwy 61 on to Highway 84, driving slowly along the twisting road, observing the wetlands and surrounding trees. As we drove on 84, the breeze seemed to increase.
We crossed the bridge and parked the truck in the small parking space. The wind blew so fiercely, the intense ripples on McCarthy Lake made it look like the lake was shivering. Ducks bobbed on the choppy water, (like boats riding out a storm). We observed the ducks for a few moments before we’d be disturbing them. Then Larry turned the truck around, back end toward the water, Larry untied the canoe, then began pulling it out of the truck. Just before the other end would have fallen out, I grabbed a hold of it and helped Larry carry it to the water’s edge. We set the canoe down in the grass. Larry moved the truck; I took the opportunity to snap a few photos. Larry parked the truck (still in that small parking area) and was ready to get the canoe in the water. Setting the canoe into the water was no simple matter; the wind was so strong we barely got it in. We struggled against the powerful gusts trying to blow the canoe away. Somehow we managed and stepped in. We were facing downstream, heading for the bridge.
“We want to go upstream; we don’t want to be out on the big, open water. Steer us so the bow is going upstream.” I pushed against the bottom on the left side with all my might; the wind was against us, wanting to push us downstream. I tried pulling on the right, muscles taunt. Larry was helping steer. I tried pushing against the bottom of the Lake but couldn’t reach, throwing me a little off balance. The canoe turned enough that we were no longer headed downstream toward the bridge but across the stream straight for the beaver lodge. The bow hit the cache of sticks (food for winter) next to the lodge. I set the blade against the wood cache, on my left, and pushed. Muscles straining against the wind, I could feel it even in my back. With the solid branches to push against, we were finally heading upstream. Though the canoe was now headed the right direction, it was still a battle to keep going upstream, into the wind. (Despite all the hard work it was cold.) Paddling hard, my thoughts drifted to the voyageurs of old, the men who explored this region of North America mainly by canoe – across huge lakes in violent squalls with waves large enough to swallow large canoes, and up, down, and across the Mississippi in deadly weather; I imagine they faced far worse than the water Larry and I did – I’m awed by the strength, courage and resolve those men must have had. We paddled up a smaller stream, between trees and wild rice, it was narrower there. We came clear of the tall wild rice, and eased up on the paddling.
“We’re going to be fighting the whole way.” Larry quit paddling altogether for a few moments.
“Northern shovleres, the gaudy ones.” Larry pointed to a pair of ducks bobbing on the water. I found the colorful ducks among the vegetation to our right and took a few photos. We stopped paddling altogether. The wind pushed the bow to the right (east). The canoe was sideways across the channel, we went across the channel a little ways, almost toward the northern shovelers. We steered the canoe to go down the channel. The canoeing was still difficult, the wind was still moving the canoe.
“You can take it easy, so your hands are at the ready with the camera.” We observed more northern shovelers and teals bobbing in the water to our left. We ran into a few patches of really thick wild rice, tangled and matted on the water’s surface. The pace would slow to a crawl, requiring extra effort. Larry had to push with his paddle to keep us moving. Once the canoe was no longer on top of the rice, our quick windblown pace was back. At a great speed, with very little steering by Larry, we were blown back to the spot we put in at, hitting the bank almost at ramming speed.
“It’s too windy to canoe,” Larry said as we hit the bank. I stood up and stepped out on to the bank. I then pulled the canoe further up on the bank so Larry could get out without stepping into the water. Larry backed the truck up toward the canoe for us to load it. After securing the canoe, we were off.
Despite our failed canoe adventure, we weren’t giving up just yet. Just around the wooded bend in the road lay a prairie between the road and water. It was state owned. Larry parked the truck off the road. An old fence surrounded a field of golden little bluestem, rolling in the wind. Larry stepped over the fence with ease, then pushed the wire down a little bit so I could also step over the wire. This part of the sand prairie was new to me. I was excited to explore this new territory though I was cold from the fierce wind. We hiked at a quick pace across the prairie. Stumbling on the loose, uneven, sandy ground, I trailed way behind Larry, almost having to run to catch up. The little bluestem came up to my waist, I ran my fingers along it. Since we were unable to observe creatures on the water while being on it ourselves, we were going to get as close to the water as we could to watch the ducks. (We headed straight, westward.)
A thick wall of scrubby trees ringed the water’s edge. As we drew near, Larry spotted a blue bird on a branch. We paused to look at it. I looked at it through the viewfinder on my camera with a long lens. It almost looked unreal, something out of a book. If I’ve seen a blue bird before it was a fleeting glance as it flew away, perhaps that’s why it seemed unreal. The beautiful bird sat perfectly still, a lovely combination of blue, orange and white. I marveled at the small bird.
We began walking again, drawing closer to the blue bird. As we continued to draw closer, it flew away. Close to the wall of trees, we turned more northwest, to approach the pond from the north. We glimpsed the ducks busy on the pond, while we stood on the outside of the mass of trees. Then Larry lowered himself closer to the ground and half crawled under the thick branches of cedar trees. I squatted down and followed his example. “They’ll fly off. We’ll sit down and then they’ll come back.” With a great clamor of squawking a couple groups did fly, but there were a few that stayed. We kneeled down, getting into a more comfortable position to wait and watch for a few minutes. Tucked under the cedar, with trees all around us, we were fairly well protected from the gusting wind. The view of the pond wasn’t the best since we had to peer through branches but we were well covered so as long as we held still, the ducks wouldn’t be too frightened. As Larry predicted, the in flight flocks circled about for a few minutes but then gracefully landed back on the pond.
“In coming.” It was amazing to watch them land. “They’re beautiful teals!” whispered Larry.
“Yep, and they’re both here. There’s a widgeon.” We whispered quietly, not wanting to scare the ducks too much.” Despite the brutal wind, watching the ducks floating along the water’s surface was quite relaxing. There was a certain thrill to sneaking under the trees, sitting in hiding, and observing. I felt like a child – free. The floating ducks mesmerizing me.
Unfortunately, my next story, though written, is still in need of editing. So to make up for missing last week and not having a story ready yet for this week, I put together a photo essay. The following photos are of McCarthy Lake monthly, except for February. I was either standing on the bridge, on the ice just beyond the bridge or sitting in the canoe not far from the bridge.
January 29th. After walking down and back up Schmoker’s Channel, Larry and I walked under the bridge to have a look at McCarthy. With so much vegetation it seemed like there were only pockets of ice and snow rather than an actual lake.
March 9th. After bird watching from a few different boat landings, Larry and I stopped on the bridge to look out over McCarthy Lake. The view hadn’t changed much other than the absence of snow and the ice had thawed. It still lacked the appearance of a lake or even a stream. Though still very dead and barren in appearance, it was beautiful.
April 8th. Larry and I attempted to canoe McCarthy (hopefully you can read that story this coming week). The water level had risen considerably, it finally looked like a lake. The trees were waking up and beginning to leaf out.
April 28th. I was on my own. It had been raining. The bluffs almost swallowed by the clouds, more of the trees had leaves and others were still in the process of leafing out. I stood in awe of the beauty of the Lake in the rain.
May 12th. Another canoe adventure with Larry (hopefully also coming soon, with amazing photos you won’t want to miss)! McCarthy had come fully alive! The trees were splendid in their summer greenery, cranes, geese, and red wing black birds serenaded us.
May 19th. Still yet another canoe adventure with Larry. The morning light was perfect! The beauty of McCarthy fully alive was stunning.
I finally got around to cleaning out my last dead hive last Monday. Mice had moved in so I was procrastinating getting it done. But letting it sit open in the cold and rain for a couple weeks killed the mice so at least I wasn’t dealing with live mice. I took both boxes away from the hive stands a little bit before taking them apart. I removed the top box (the middle frames were missing because Jason forgot to put them in when he caught the swarm and we decided to just leave it be.) The nest was in the middle, resting on top of the frames for the bottom box with a couple dead mice. So, with the top box off, I tipped the bottom box over on its end to remove the dead mice and nest. Then I pulled out the frames from the first box and with my hive tool scraped off the empty, smelly comb – leaving the comb that hadn’t had dead bees or mice damage. The second box had another dead mouse, I shook the hive box and the mouse dropped out. Most of the frames in that box were free of dead bees and hadn’t been touched by the mice. I didn’t have to do as much scraping. I put the frames in a trash bag and then into the freezer. I left the boxes out with covers off to air them out. (I scraped the dead bees off the bottom board too.)
Last Friday, I got the apiary set up for the next morning when I would bring home more bees. I took some equipment to the garage over night or put it away so the apiary would be cleaner and more organized. I set up the hive stands, beetle baffles and put the reducers in place. I got some frames out of the freezer too.
Last Saturday, I went out early to finish preparing for the new bees. I made sure inner and outer covers were there, four outer covers and only three inner covers. Then I put frames in boxes and set a box by each hive stand so the bees would have a second, deep hive body right away.
Around 8:00 am with everything ready to go, I went to pick up Jason from his house to accompany me to get the bees. We set out from there around 8:25 am, Jason drove. Along the drive to Rushford, we talked about bees mostly. As always, my stomach was somewhat in knots from nerves but not as bad as last year, this time I knew what to expect with a nine-frame nuc.
We pulled into the bee yard around 9:11 am, other than the beekeeper and his wife we were the only ones there. There weren’t many nucs left (there was a pick up day on April 30th too). It was a very cold morning, very near freezing, with a breeze and cloud cover. (Last year had been 80 degrees and miserable so I had been praying for a cooler day this year – perhaps not quite so cold, though.) There weren’t any bees flying around, they preferred to stay in their warm boxes. I asked the beekeeper what races of bees he had left. The Russian bees were all gone, he said, what was left were carniolans and Minnesota Hygienic but he didn’t know which ones were which because most of the markings on the boxes had washed away.
Jason and I walked around the nine frame nucs, essentially a deep hive body with an already established colony with all life stages and honey present. Jason pried the cover off with his hive tool so we could take a look at five; we weren’t keen on the look of one. After picking out our four, Jason and the beekeeper lifted them up and I smoked the bottoms. Then, gently, they placed the boxes on bottom boards laid out in the van. There were a few bees flying from moving their hives but nothing near swarms of bees. Jason covered the boxes with sheets to hopefully keep the bees further contained. There were only a couple of bees on the outside of the sheet and they stayed in the back of the van. The bees were pretty quiet on the ride back, unlike last year, and after awhile I almost forgot they were there.
At the farm, Jason backed the van up into the bee yard. The beekeeper had told us to put the second hive deep on the bottom since the first was so full of honey and the bees naturally move down (except in the winter); so while Jason opened up the back of the van and pulled the sheets off, I fixed the beetle baffles that fell off the bottom boards and then put the empty boxes on the bottom boards. Jason placed the full nucs on the empty boxes. Then I pried the top covers off, replaced them with inner covers and telescoping outer covers. There were a few bees that were flying while we did this but nothing like angry swarms trying to sting us. I noticed despite the cold temperatures my Russian bees that survived the winter were flying.
Note: The beginning of this story on the farm blog, http://prairiehollow.com/blog3/2016/05/22/honeybee-update/.
This post is a little different from my others. It’s another photo essay, yet not of flowers, trees, animals or stunning landscapes but of a child thoroughly enjoying the outdoors. This is for my nephew, Abel, a true farm boy and outdoors lover. A little boy who is far too intelligent, making it easy to think he’s older than two years. The farm is his favorite place and when he’s in the house he begs to go outside. He delights in the “moos” and pigs and tractor rides. Playing and “helping” in the greenhouses and gardens is part of his weekly routine, which he also enjoys. Though two years old, he knows what needs to be done on the farm and how it should be done and he’s eager to be a part of it. His charming smile, incredible understanding of things, and his ability to communicate well with so many words never fails to put a smile on my face and leave me in awe. (He is fascinated by my camera and often asks for me to take pictures of him; these photos were too great not to share.) So this is to my little farm boy:
One evening as the sun was setting, Abel’s family had been planting in their small garden plot on the farm next to our much larger garden. His dad, Seth was watering the newly planted potatoes and had spilled some water, creating a small mud puddle. Being a boy and a toddler, Abel began playing in it. However, he didn’t just stomp and splash in it like a typical toddler but rather was dancing, doing some kind of jig. Tongue hanging out in pure joy at something so simple as a tiny mud puddle.
After a dance in the mud, Abel took his tractor out into the nearby hay field, following daddy into the sunset.
Needing a closer look, he bent over and grabbed a handful, once in his hand he could look at it more closely.
Satisfied with the hay, he left his tractor and the field to run, enjoying being outside.
“How deep is this water?”
“Start out about breast height, then sink to your chin, then sink until you’re under the water.”
“How about I just stay in the canoe?”
“That’d be a good idea.”
The beaver scent mounds, tucked along the bank on our left, had come into view again. The lodge and scent mounds weren’t the only signs of beaver; a tree had been chewed on, sporting a ring around its trunk.
“See that fence? They used to graze this.”
Larry joked, “Water buffalo.” He eased us around a tree sticking out over the water.
“Let’s get you up close to those scent mounds so you can smell them.” We pulled right up close to two. “Can you smell it?” Get a handful close to your nose.” I leaned over and grabbed a handful of dirt and vegetation as he instructed. “Do you smell it?”
“I’m not sure; it’s earthy.”
“You’d know; it’s quite strong and distinctive.” We pulled up to a couple more mounds. Larry passed some on to me placing it on the blade of the paddle. I put it close under my nose; I could smell it then. A strong, musky smell that was very good too. I described this to Larry. He replied, “It does smell really good. Castor is a base for a lot of perfumes.” I set the wad of dead vegetation and dirt back on the mound. Larry began to paddle again, toward the bridge.
We neared the bridge; Larry gracefully steered us through the passage between the pilings. Instead of landing the canoe, we continued on into McCarthy Lake. It was so peaceful. We didn’t talk much and when we did, we kept our voices very low. There was another beaver lodge built against the bank near the northwest end of the bridge. Was this lodge another house of the family in the lodge below the bridge? Was it even being lived in right now? Were there beaver pups inside with the mother? My attention was drawn to a clump of alder trees on our right, I thought I saw or heard a creature jump in the water. My eyes scanned the alder clump, near the water’s surface. I hoped to see whatever creature it was that had drawn my attention, but there was nothing. My attention was grabbed by the reflections, images of the above world mirrored by the water. I was still reveling in the symmetrical reflections of the trees. They seemed to entice me.
Larry steered the canoe into a small nook to our right, a smaller pond, bordered by trees and rushes. As we entered the pond, I observed a painted turtle slide off a log, among rushes near the bank. A small ploop reached me as it hit the water. In quiet excitement, “Larry, a turtle slid of that log!” barely more than a whisper.
“Here’s a turtle, too.” He must have seen it swimming in the water and scooped it on to his paddle blade. I turned around to look, but I only caught a flash of its very dark carapace before it slipped off into the water.
We circled around the pond, along the west side, heading north first. We saw something, most likely a turtle, dive into the water among rushes near the north bank. Gently, Larry paddled us along the north side, turned us to head south along the east side. We heard a commotion in the rushes further down near the east bank – loud rustling and splashing. As quickly as could be done, Larry eased the canoe straight toward the sound. (We had been more toward the center of the pond instead of tight against the bank.) Closer and closer. We seemed to be holding our breaths waiting; hoping to see whatever was making such a racket. It stopped for a moment. We moved in even closer, until with almost a cringe and shudder for making such a noise, the canoe collided with the rushes, getting hung up on the vegetation. Then all was quiet. We sat in silence for several minutes, waiting and hoping to see the source of the loud splashing, to no avail. After a few minutes, without the splashing resuming, Larry quietly backed up the canoe, barely making a sound with the blade in the water. Heading south again, near the middle of the pond, we continued on in silence.
A round, brownish object in a clump of alder and dogwood caught my eye. At first, I thought it was a log or a growth of some sort. Then I thought perhaps it’s an animal, and then no, it’s probably just a log or something. I continued to scrutinize it as we drew near, lifted my camera, and peered through my viewfinder. It no longer looked like a log, the shape and character wasn’t quite right. We drew just a little closer. There was a face – eyes and ears – it was an animal! I whispered, my voice barely audible, “Larry,” I said no more but pointed to the creature in the alders. Larry saw it too, bringing us closer to it as confirmation rather than saying anything. It was a beaver. So exciting! We drew nearer, the whole time I peered through my viewfinder. Then it saw us, as Larry continued to paddle us closer. Its eyes were on me. We held eye contact for a few moments. Those eyes didn’t look scared but mistrustful. Being eyed up, having eye contact with a beaver was incredible; an awesome feeling of connectedness. It felt like a privilege. Did the beaver feel it to? It stayed still, watching me for a few minutes instead of dashing away. Then it turned away, no longer facing me but not in a hurry to escape either, for it paused a moment before continuing to turn completely around. Slowly it walked down to the water’s edge and slipped in, I saw it for a moment before it disappeared behind the alders. Wow! The experience was so stunning, I was wonderstruck. Amazing. Beautiful. Peaceful. The beaver couldn’t have been too bothered by us; it slipped away quietly without slapping its tail in alarm and warning on the water surface. The experience had seemed to happen outside of time. Another gift I will always carry with me.
We continued along, turning the canoe back to the west and out of the little pond to the bigger channel coming down McCarthy. The water level had risen significantly in a few weeks time; however the tangle of bent-over wild rice was still very thick, nearly covering the water surface. Dip the paddle in and lift it out, wild rice would be tangled around it. Large mystery snail shells, floated on top of some nearly submerged wild rice.
I admired the vegetation, curled rushes, folded over to make an arch in the water, the density of the golden wild rice, and the exquisite, intricate design of rushes standing upright, out of the water. Red bark of dog wood clumped with alders, golden rushes, reflected in the water. Cattail seed head fluffy, coming unraveled.
We were approaching the bridge again, this time we were landing the canoe; my heart sank a little with the thought of leaving the water, going back to everyday life. However, I was eager to tell of our canoe adventure and look at and share the photos. Larry paddled the canoe back to where we put in, running it onto the bank so I could step out. Once out of the canoe, I pulled it further up onto the bank so it wouldn’t float away and for Larry and Hank to get out. Hank again wanted to plunge into the water. Larry and I each picked up an end of the canoe, and carried it around to the back of the truck. I lifted it up onto the bed and Larry pushed the canoe in. While Larry fastened down the canoe, I studied catkins on an alder that grew on the edge of the parking lot. We looked out at the water above the bridge again, before leaving, a muskrat or beaver was swimming across, a wide “V” behind it. At that distance and without seeing the tail we were unable to identify it. We pulled out of the parking lot, ending one adventure with talk of another.
Canoeing along the wall of wild rice, we approached the spot where there had been an ice ridge when we walked down the channel in January. The Wisconsin bluffs were ahead of us, Goose Lake stretched out between, filled with waterfowl. The wild clamor of tundra swans became louder as we neared the lake, as did the honking of Canada geese. Various ducks here and there jibber-jabbered all at once. Coots bobbed in the water just ahead, where we had crossed over the ice ridges. They were a large black mass sitting on top of the water. They were the loudest of all the birds, sounding like wood instruments rubbed together with precision for the most intriguing sound. Larry again stopped paddling so we could just sit there to marvel at the sight and sounds of so many flocks of waterfowl. And marvel we did, we were enthralled.
The air boat came roaring up from the south end of the lake, further out from us. Loud and obnoxious, it dimmed the music of the waterfowl, even the coots that were floating fairly close to us. Several flocks were put in the air; they circled about the lake squawking their complaints. Larry swore again. “These birds are trying to feed to gain energy to continue migrating and to reproduce – those guys are out messing with that.” The growl of the engine messed with the harmony and connectedness with the place. We observed the birds take flight; we had front row seats of the coots. With lots of splashing, they ran on top the water to take off. It was lovely to watch and listen to, the spray of water behind them as they ran and then left the water. The boat was further away now, just a low hum, the birds further up and across the lake were still being disturbed and taking to the air.
“See the cluster of white birds over there? Those are tundra swans.”
“Wow! – I can hear them.” A few minutes later four flew over head. – Graceful, elegant, and pretty. (Larry had said they were a sexy bird with ancient lineage.) They seemed like royalty with their grace and majesty, appearing refined. I was dazzled by them, mesmerized. Another group flew above us on our left, put in the air by the air boat. Sixteen swans, large, white bodies gliding across the sky. I watched in awe as they passed. My heart leaping with excitement, that would have been enough but there was still more majestic displays coming.
Larry drew my attention away from the sky, “See the flock of white birds skimming over the water, to our right? Those are pelicans.”
“Really? Cool!” I had wanted to see pelicans up close and take great photos of them but all the pelicans I had seen in the past year were so far away any photos I took weren’t very clear. This was indeed a very precious gift. I sat poised with my camera, watching them through my long lens. An amazing, breathtaking experience that left me awestruck, filled with wonder at the extravagant beauty of nature and so humbled and thankful to be given the opportunity to witness it. This was a special gift to uplift my heart. Not only was I able to observe the pelicans flying in, but I was able to take pictures too. I was elated. Saying thank you over and over again in my head, thanking God who knew this would absolutely delight me, not just in the moment but for a long time after as I gazed at the photos I couldn’t believe I took. Was He laughing as He watched me gaze at those large, incredible birds? Delighting in my delight? I think he was indeed. They came closer, flying just above the water surface. Black-winged tips spread out, then crooked as they glided. There were at least eight. Sometimes they flew almost in a line. When they began getting closer, I had to peer through the wild rice to see them. Then they were right in front of me, though I was still viewing them filtered through the wild rice. Beautiful. A perfect shot, right in front of my camera. They dropped even lower, almost skipping across the water’s surface, which mirrored their oblong bodies. Their white and black feathers contrasting perfectly, very pleasing and eye catching; they were radiant. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them, captured the moment both with my camera and my heart, where it be treasured always. I sat in amazement, watching the pelicans glide over the much smaller coots, widgeon, bufflehead, canvas backs, golden eyes, and green-winged teals bobbing in the water. We watched them begin to fade and land in the water ahead, far across the lake. I looked back to our right, the direction the pelicans had come, waterfowl dotted the water surface, a grand bluff sat on the edge. I was so amazed and thankful for the pelicans flying so close.
Instead of continuing to follow our earlier route across the ice, out on to the lake to the woodlot on the bank, Larry turned the canoe around, back up the channel. “We’ll head back; I want to poke around on the other side of the bridge a little bit.”
“A black willow, an ash, and I’m pretty sure an elm.” I marveled at the beauty of the twisting branches of the black willow.
We continued along, following our route down. Though we were going up stream, Larry was able to paddle with ease, mostly just steering the canoe. There wasn’t a need for me to help paddle, and although I would have been happy to and indeed it felt a little strange not to, I was still enjoying the freedom to take photos. I switched between my long and short lens often, needing both to capture this place (the short lens to capture the landscape, the long lens for the birds). I was still awed by the beauty of this place – water, rushes, rice, trees, bluffs, birds, reflections – and desired to capture it with my camera (and later, words). I enjoyed being connected, plugged in to this place, feeling its energy and spirit soar through me – refreshing and healing. (This place has captured my heart.) It was certainly coming alive and busy – so much for the senses to absorb (wild calls of swans, coots, and ducks, buzz of insects – flowering trees).
Though we passed the same markers going up as we did going down, it was still just as beautiful, exciting, and awe-inspiring as it had been going down. The landscape, especially the trees reflecting in the water still captivated me. Still marveled at the tall wild rice, the austere, drilled snag. Still curious and wondered about the muskrat lodges. The ripples from a creature poking above the surface and then disappearing, still disappointed that I missed something and yet also thrilling something was there. The magic feeling while passing through the beaver dam again. The fallen snag, crown in the water was so low and the vegetation so thick we couldn’t paddle. We were very thankful for the high water that provided easy canoeing on this trip.